Can You Predictably Recover from Setbacks?

Can You Predictably Recover from Setbacks?

Knowing everything will work out in the end may open up opportunities that you’ve only dreamed about achieving. 

Last time we explored a thought exercise used to evaluate what you really want in life and testing if you actually already have it. This week we will look at the fourth question on Tim Ferriss’ 17 Questions to Test the Impossible. 

“4. What are the worst things that could happen? Could I get back here?”

Fear-setting/fear-rehearsal…do it.

We covered this in a prior article on working through Fear-setting and Fear-rehearsal. Take something you worry about, dissect it to find your real vulnerability, then get out there an evaluate it. I am still selling hard that this is one of the most therapeutically valuable ideas there is. It is the backbone of the Exposure Response Preventiom therapy we use to treat phobias and OCD. Of course makes a fear-based thought exercise would look like anxiety treatment! In fact, you might even consider fear and anxiety to be on a spectrum of each other. 

Fear/shyness/hesitancy/worry are all normal everyday experience. Anxiety is a diagnosis word that connotes a pathological level of symptomatology. They are probably the same mental process but one is less held in check by positive mechanisms. Improve your checks and you may not be pathological anymore. 

Can I do more than survive?

One concern I have with fear-setting and rehearsal is that it may perpetuate an unhealthy status quo. If I can build up a tolarance to adversity I can withstand most anything. That’s a great strategy to be able to navigate micro-adversity. It allows you to put the worry out of your mind and get through today. However, long term tolerance of macro adversity may not be somewhere you want to stay. 

I’m going to call macro adversity the a long term challenge that will not resolve itself without some effort by those involved. This problem won’t blow over with time. Macro adversity involves a degree of personal perspective here. Losing your job may be macro for one person and micro for another. Maybe I am confident I will get a job in a week: micro adversity. Maybe instead I am confident I have almost a year of job hunting ahead of me: macro adversity. Many variables can contribute to that difference. The least of which being a persons own sense of resilience. 

I would not want to tell someone “take this risk, it may lead to years of hardship but it’s okay, you’ve proven to yourself you can handle years of hardship.” I would want to say “take this risk because we’ve identified the worst case scenario and developed a plan for how you can get back to today in a reasonable amount of time.” That’s a bit of next-level fear rehearsal so let’s dive in to see if we can extract more meaning. 

Being Stuck

I work with a lot of people that would describe themselves as being stuck. It seems more common as people get older and worry about not being competitive in the job market. They feel that the quality of having kids and a mortgage will make companies not want to hire them. Therefore they live in a system of “stay here at all costs.” 

I don’t have a sense of what degree of cognitive distortion this may be. Age-discrimination is probably something for our society to address. Is it true that if the average business considers two people with the same skill set they would hire away from the older, person with a family? That’s a great recipe for sealing the fate of our mid-life demographic to functional decline. 
People also seem to feel stuck if there is a dream out there they cannot access. Today may not be so bad necessarily. However that may not matter if the grass over there looks SO green and includes a pool and cabana with drink service. Our discovery last week may have unearthed just such a conflict. 

If these stuck people knew they could take chances because they were confident in their recovery ability what would they do?

Getting Back

Here’s how to work through planning your Get Back System. It’s a lot like the classic stories of dropping bread crumbs to find your way home. If you were on a hike and thought “I bet there’s an amazing view two peaks away, but there’s no trail” would you just set off and figure out how to get back later? What if I could guarantee you will return to this exact point, now would you go? 

Step 1- Where are you getting back to?

There’s no point in developing a plan to get back if “here” isn’t where you ever want to be again. Though I will argue, if you are “here” today we can reasonably assume it is somewhat workable. Of course that won’t be accurate for everyone. Regardless, answer these questions to help evaluate where you want to get back to being: 

How will I know when I am back? What does it look like? What are my definitions of here?

It may be income, a home, maybe even a family or relationship. There are no parameters of expectation. You are deciding the future so you have total control over what you decide constitutes getting back here. 

Step 2- Where are you going?

Going back to the hiking analogy, if you want to bust off-trail and walk randomly into the woods, cool. However your ability to get back is going to be significantly limited compared to a person who says “I’m going over there.” In fact, you could argue that guy who says “I’m just going to go and see where I end up” will still actually be making a number of smaller directionals decisons. In that way why not increase your likelihood of having a good experience by setting some sense of your goal. 

Now I know many people will still answer “I have no idea where I am going.” That’s probably an assumption brought on by some internal resistance to listening to your own desires. I really believe we all know where we want to go at all times. We just vary in our ability to hear that voice or to trust it when we do. 

Step 3: Define the Space in Between

As with going off-trail on a hike, what does the terrain look like on the way to your destination? Are certain routes there easier than others? Where does your path need to go to get there? 

For example, maybe you really want to have a go with acting but worry that if you drop everything for LA you’ll never make it back to a six-figure career. If you could guarantee you’d have that exact job jack would you go? Anoehrt question would he: knowing what you know now, how would you get your job again? Maybe you can talk to your employer and understand what the terms of return could be. You may be surprised by how much a company will extend themselves to bring back someone who is good at their job. Recruitment is expensive. 

There may also be steps involved. If your acting career flamed out, does an intermediate job get you out of waiting tables and into a positive income trajectory? Is there a training piece that would need to be in place or maybe a license you need to maintain?

I will warn here- if your recovery/get back plan starts with “I can just go back to school” I would highly recommend reconsidering your timing. I’ve mentioned before that for some people, getting degrees represents this way of spinning wheels to avoid having to commit. You often mortgage time and money from future-you to achieve this. Worse is the reality that very few jobs need a specific degree and many people can achieve their industry-specific learning by working. I might argue you have a better chance of the same job by of working your way up in four years than you would competing as a new hire in an open-market hiring process. 

Step 4: Go Practice

This is fear-rehearsal all over again. If there’s a part of your recovery plan you think is integral and you aren’t sure you can do it, go try it for a day. If you would need to move to a lower cost of living area and live in a smaller home, go rent an AirBnB there. If there’s a job you will need to save the day, can you volunteer or shadow in that industry for a day and get a sense of it? If it’s money, can you set out to use your current skills to increase your current income by exactly the rate you’d need to “get back”. 

If your recovery plan involves proving you can make money, I wouldn’t try to use your current job to increase income. Doing overtime isn’t the same as working from scratch. I would want to see you get a side gig that can at least show the promise of making X income if you carried it out. Lyft, Uber, and TaskRabbit are just a few examples of part- time work you can do to get a feel of the hustle of making a living. 

I highly recommend focusing on remote work here as it can give you a minimum overhead opportunity with a high degree of flexibility. If I’m starting out with nothing you better believe I am renting a room in an apartment in a cheap city with no state income tax but then trying to access work remote work from companies in high COL areas. Leverage. 


Knowing where you are is great. If you are like most people, where you are is a temporary condition on your way to something else. Part of the challenge of going from here to there is being sure you won’t get lost. There are ways to formalize that concern and mitigate your risk. By defining it and creating a system for recovery you may be able to set out on the journey of a lifetime. 


Fear-rehearsal: Train Yourself to Withstand Anything

Fear-rehearsal: Train Yourself to Withstand Anything

Fear is a perception relative to one’s confidence that everything will be okay.

On one end of the spectrum are Phobias, while daredevils exist on the opposite side. The only difference between them is the relationship between past experience and future expectation. To a person with a phobia of driving, every person hauling to work across the Golden Gate Bridge is Evil  Knievel. Alternatively Jimmy Chin is not overly concerned with sleeping in a basket on a granite cliff-face, in a storm, after climbing for 4 days in a row.

Fear-rehearsal, as introduced in Tim Ferriss’ book Tools of Titans, is what we therapists call Exposure Response Prevention (ERP) Therapy. In the last post we discussed the first step in ERP: defining your fear. The method here is that if you can progressively introduce yourself to a fear-trigger you can eventually overcome it. Along the way you are honing your skills for distress tolerance, mindfulness, and coping. It’s kind of like saying you want to bench your body weight so you start increasing the weight on the bar by 5 lbs a month. (Look! It’s that small steps thing again. That must be really important.)

The best example of fear-rehearsal in Tools of Titans is Rolf Potts’ section and his book Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to World Travel. Rolf is committed to sharing the value of testing assumptions and expanding our portfolio of experiences. Similar to Andrew Zimmern and food, Rolf doesn’t want us to miss out on all the world can offer.  Not only for the experience but for the growth-potential as a human.

What I love most about Rolf’s approach to travel is that it is developed to allow any human to do it at any moment in time. It’s a method you can adapt to your opportunities. You can vagabond this weekend for a single day without question. I get a little frustrated when self-help guys (which Rolf is not) offer answers that the general person cannot afford. “Find wellness inside this cryotherapy device that costs thousands of dollars.” Gee, thanks. For me, don’t even talk about those ideas. Tell me how to do it in my home tonight.

Another reason I think that Vagabonding is a great prescription for fear-rehearsal is that in our society money is a very significant component of a wide-array of fears. Work stress. Being a provider for one’s family. Projecting future prosperity. Engagement of fun, leisure and wellness. Money can have some impact on each of these and many others. If we can insulate ourselves from that fear we can find freedom and power.

In America’s capitalism-driven society we tend to answer any question involving money with the idea to make more. While that can work it creates a “have to” mentality and exposes us to not being able to retreat. I love how The Art of War informs this in emphasizing how important it is that a general not fear retreat. You are the general of your life. If you refuse to retreat you will lose the battle.

Vagabonding and Tools of Titans then are both emphasizing the need to practice retreating. Fear-setting is exactly that. If I lost my job tomorrow what would my life look like? Can I go practice that? Rolf has found more value in his travels walking around looking for a cafe full of old locals than he has on organized tours or site seeing. He also loves the experience of getting lost in a city with no agenda or plan. The best part is that both of these ideas are free and they can be done in Paris just as easily as they can in Fresno.

Rolf sells big on the idea that taking sabbaticals is a great way to achieve vagabonding. However I challenge that day-long sabbaticals are a great place to start. They are called “days off” and we have them every week (hopefully). What I will do now is work through how a person might approach setting up a vagabonding sabbatical for one day. I will do this through the character of Ellen.

Ellen is very unhappy with her life and feels trapped. She isn’t quite sure what would bring joy to her life. However she is fairly certain her job keeps her from it. When talking with her family about her situation she often finds herself saying “I just wish I could…”.

What follows from there is an idea that is then quickly defeated by “…but I can’t.”

Ellen did her fear-setting exercises. She is worried that if she leaves this job she will have to start at the bottom again. She has student loans to pay, a hefty health insurance payment, not to mention an emotional debt to herself for “failing”. Ultimately there is also a movie playing in the background of her mind that this job is the only think keeping her from joining Viggo Mortensen on “The Road”.

Effectively Ellen’s fear of these catastrophic outcomes is stronger than her disdain for her quality of life. For some reason it is easier to trade her own happiness to avoid an unrealistic, imaginative scenario. However, in her mind it is realistic and actual. So great, let’s call her fear’s bluff.

Ellen’s fear-assumptions exist in two spheres:

1. “It’s Not Possible For Anyone” Assumption– financial burden of health insurance and loans is not modifiable.

To beat this Ellen could contact her health insurance company to learn the income qualifications for state-funded insurance. She can contact her student loan provider to understand the requirements for low-income repayment plan.

Doing this she may find that if she lost all her income and got a minimum-wage, full-time job she could qualify for health insurance at $1 a month after tax credits. Sure she may end up with out-of-pocket costs that exceed her income, but she may be able to negotiate that down. Regardless she’d have health insurance.

Her student loans are similar. If she got that minimum-wage job at a  non-profit or government job she could make income-based payments for 10 years and be done with them. At 10% of a minimum-wage salary it would be tough but not the end. She may decide that a few years of no payment due to economic hardship may be worth the accrued interest if it really came to it.

Now she has some solid numbers. If she lost her job she would be looking at living off around $17000 a year after taxes.
2. “I Can’t” Assumption- I need my current lifestyle.

Now with some parameters in front of her, Ellen can set off on testing what she really “can’t” do. This part involves intentionally getting a little bit uncomfortable. Almost any lasting gain achieved in life comes on the back-end of tolerable, planned discomfort. This is the foundation of fitness training. It is why rags-to-riches stories happen. Chris Sacca talks about this “sweet and sour” in Tools of Titans. Rolf Potts and Tim Ferriss intentionally create it. Though Rolf’s is less directly therapeutic in design.

What Ellen needs to do is figure out what life on $17k is like. What is life on $1400 a month like? What is life on $50 a day like? One thing is for sure, she will likely be leaving the Bay Area. If she held to the tenet of spending 20% of income on housing she would be looking for a $350 a month room. Well now hold on… that’s an assumption.

Ellen should start with finding out how to sleep on $50 a day in SF. Take out the cash, clear the calendar on a Saturday, leave the cell phone at home, grab a photo ID, and go live. It’s funny how the idea of doing this in your home town may sound silly but if I said to do it in Madrid it would be novel. We often overlook the opportunity to be a tourist in our own space.

As Rolf Potts advocates, find ways to be a tourist without using money to create opportunity. Couchsurfing could allow Ellen to see what free housing may mean. How would she transform meals if she needed to eat for under $10? Would Rolf’s idea of meeting strangers offer opportunities to expand her people-skills? What amazing things could she find if she just got lost in her home town?

As we said, one reality Ellen may find is that the Bay Area is not a place that helps people “get by”. In this regard Ellen should research lower cost of living places. Once she finds it, take a vacation there. Go vagabonding. Start in the city center and walk concentric circles around the area. Spend the time observing the subtle things about her surroundings to learn what it would feel like to be a local here. Contrast that life to her own and explore what differences are tolerable and intolerable.

This will open up new questions. What does she really NEED to get-by in a place she lives? Maybe she decides it’s access to open water. “I could sit by the beach every day for free!” Where could she live near an ocean or lake and not be subject to being broke? Maybe she wants to be able to work somewhere that affords her benefits like free travel or recreation. What would being it mean to be an Amtrak employee or work at a ski resort? How about a gym? Each of these are questions she could answer by practicing them for a day or two. Even practicing an entry-level job can be figured out if you set your mind to it.

You’ll never find out without trying it. You’ll never know what you’re missing until you do.

A few notes need to be made here. One is safety. Obviously we aren’t saying that facing your fears means that you need to expose yourself to danger. Be very careful how you set your plan up. You don’t win any points for taking this more aggressive. The goal is not to endure hardship but to realize it’s not as hard as you thought. “Too hard” means not sustainable and will likely further entrench your fear. While spending a night on Skid Row could test some assumptions, it could go very bad as well so it’s not worth the potential upside.

The other is that our example of Ellen is used to illustrate how you can go about breaking down a fear and practicing it. It’s not so say everyone needs to rough it on $50 to be happy. We used vagabonding as a framework. Use her example as an equation- take your fear, break it down into components, then get out there and test them. Small incremental steps.

On the back-end of this exercise you will confidently be able to tell your mind- “you’re wrong, I can do this.”